CES 2008 is waking up and quickly accelerating to a fever pitch. I walked through a convention hall the size of an airport terminal (one of about 10 such halls) to get to the CNET office, and I can tell you there are a lot of companies who are hoping to sell you a flat-screen TV.
The question that formed in my mind during yesterday's media prevew is, What does it take to motivate consumers in today's bountiful tech marketplace? The manufacturers have a daunting task ahead of them. One of their biggest challenges is that frankly, consumer electronics have reached a level of such high quality that it takes a lot to convince everyday people to ditch the $2000 TV they bought two years ago to upgrade to the latest and greatest model.
This dynamic is playing out right now in the battle between HD DVD and Blu-Ray DVD. While the industry is buzzing with the latest developments about which platform is gaining the upper hand, many consumers like me are sitting on their existing DVD collection, thinking that the picture already looks pretty darn good.
I have several suggestions for companies as they try to turn enthusiasts into customers:
In addition to pure function, convenience is key. When you are selling consumers on features that they aren't quite sure they need yet (like WiFi for digital cameras), you have to make sure that the features are easy to use. One or two steps, not four or five, working through intuitive controls and menus that make sense.
When you sell me a product, don't make me sign up for a service unless absolutely necessary. This is a pet peeve of mine. I am much less likely to buy a whizzy-cool gadget if I have to pay for a monthly service fee and keep track of that service agreement. In addition to the added cost, these side-deals contribute to the mental and administrative clutter of life.
Style is a major factor this year that can elevate a product line to stand out above the crowd. I love good design and style, and it is a definite bonus for products that have already justified their reason to exist. There is just so much cool stuff to look at here it feels like a luxury to browse in a grown-up toy store for two days. Occasionally style gets promoted way too far ahead of function. Taser International is here promoting their new "personal protection option for women who want fashion with a bite." This is a powerful self-defense weapon and women should clearly not be buying one just because it's pink.
Simplify your product lines. The plethora of choices can lead to consumer paralysis. For example, when all ink jet printers are very good, paradoxically this creates a steep learning curve to research which one is really right for you. Education, such as CNET reviews, can really help, but I also wish that individual manufacturers would simplify their product lines. In the past year, I have been stymied by the task of choosing a new HP Printer. They have six separate printer lines. Then within just the PhotoSmart line, they have 25 models. If I know I want a PhotoSmart All-in-One, there are still 9 models to choose from, from $100 to $400. How to choose between the fifth-fanciest and seventh-fanciest model? It's not so much the difference of $50, but the prospective buyer's remorse after making the wrong choice that paralyzes me. Why can't they whittle it down to three options within each product categoy: bargain, standard, and pro?
Those are my thoughts as I dive into CES. I will follow up with many shorter blog reports about what I am seeing. It's great to see the newest technology up close and give you a snapshot preview of things to come in 2008.